Liberia: Boakai, Weah Poised for Historic Rematch

Boakai announced Koung as his running mate on the ticket of the opposition Unity Party (UP) on May 28


as Former VP Boakai names Koung his Running Mate 

Former Vice President Joseph N. Boakai is set for a second shot at the presidency, having tapped Senator Jeremiah Koung as his running mate. The two will face President George Manneh Weah and his VP, Jewel Howard Taylor at the polls on October 10.

Boakai made the announcement at an April 28th campaign event that drew droves of Unity Party supporters and brought central Monrovia to a standstill. The turnout bodes well for the septuagenarian, whose loss as a sitting Vice President in 2017 placed a football star at the nation's helm. 

Boakai has a few things going for him - Weah's governance record, for one. 

The President's popularity has mirrored the tanking trajectory of the economy. Having boasted a strong legislative plurality at the onset, Weah's record of disinvestment, corruption and mismanagement returned humiliating losses in his electoral strongholds. 

Not least among his losses is his childhood stomping ground of Montserrado, for which he had won a Senate seat in 2013.

An added result has been a souring of already spare international ties. The political establishment across West Africa has long worried at the prospect of a Weah-led government. The volatile tenor of his political party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), from the start of his candidacy in 2005, did not bode well for the region's hard-won peace. 

Their fears have proven prophetic, nearly twenty years into Weah's political leadership. He has consistently played mute, in the face of political violence allegedly linked to his party. And the systematic abandonment of murder cases by the Liberia National Police has only confirmed fears that the state may have sanctioned the apparent murder of public functionaries and figures linked to the opposition. 

Calls for accountability have fallen on deaf ears, with United States sanctions of key CDC officials doing little to move the needle on corruption and human rights abuses. 

Weah, however, has felt the sting of a leaden door denying him access to Western power. His football summit with US president Joe Biden and other heads of state was the first overture any counterpart of his besides France's Emmanuel Macron had made in five years. 

And it was more a soft power move to nudge delinquent counterparts on the cusp of elections to tread with care. The cozy optics of that event hardly matter now, in the face of looming sanctions and the alleged summons Weah answered from the CIA. 

All this makes the incumbent an easy target for any opposition candidate, provided the latter has credibility enough to hurl the obvious accusations. 

But, here, Boakai has a problem. The October 10 election will be a referendum on Weah's presidency. But the former Vice President's silence over the last five years has weakened his image as a champion for justice and good governance. His statements, few and far between, have been ineffective in keeping pressure on Weah to perform. 

The former VP, still more, must answer for his age and health. If elected, he would be the oldest president elected in Liberia’s history at 78 years. Supporters have countered these concerns citing Biden's win and arguable success in office. 

Detractors see the combination of age and poor health as a liability, not least because of his track record of choosing unpalatable running mates like former House Speaker Emmanuel Nuquay in 2017. 

His current choice of a running mate may prove no less crippling to him, on the governance front, given that he has framed the election as a battle for the soul of the country. "The Liberian people that Liberia is not a poor country, but the perennial problem of this country is mainly triggered by greed, the lack of sound and honest leadership, little of which we have experienced in the last several decades of our nearly 200 years of statehood," Boakai said Friday, taking a jab at Weah. 

Nonetheless, choosing the political scion of former warlord, Nimba Senator Prince Y. Johnson as his running mate begs the question of what contrast the ticket brings to Weah's. The CDC allied with the National Patriotic Party of jailed warlord Charles Taylor, in 2017, and won. This seems to have ensured the continued lack of accountability for war criminals in and out of political office. Prince Johnson's alliance with a Boakai-Koung administration would raise the question of what justice Liberians should hope to see. A war crimes court notwithstanding, other corruption charges brought would undoubtedly place the Senator in the cross hairs and Boakai between a rock and a hard place, since Johnson was  sanctioned under the US government's Magnitsky Act in 2021. 

While Boakai grapples with this conundrum, Weah is not going to the election empty-handed. His administration does have some popular policy achievements it can point to. He has some access to capital - ethically sourced or otherwise - and the power to starve, support and guide the National Elections Commission, as suits his interests. 

He also has a head start, having illegally kicked off his campaign in February this year and flooded Monrovia billboards with his posters. 

He will likely focus on bread-and-butter issues, boasting of a record economic growth for the last two years, the financing of new roads, bridges, hospitals among other initiatives. 

These will fall a great deal short of his numerous campaign promises. But, while Weah cannot boast much of job creation and poverty reduction, his strategic campaign tactics make him a popular figure who retains a large and committed base of supporters. Cash violence, common in the political landscape and not unique to the CDC, appears to be one of the party's go-to moves to win votes. It remains to be seen whether a desperate electorate, sabotaged by his poor leadership, will fall for such ploys yet again. 

Boakai is banking on the hope that they will not; and he may be right. 

Many Liberians worry that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Results from a recent Afrobormeter survey reflects this frustration, showing that a growing number of Liberians have lost confidence in the country and hope to escape its poor prospects.

According to the survey, two-thirds or more of all respondents cited limited economic opportunities and the negative direction of the country as driving factors behind their desire to seek better opportunities overseas.  

The survey also revealed that many Liberians believe the lives of those who emigrate often improve compared to those who stay in the country. The results further suggest that rising economic hardship and unemployment are the primary drivers of this migration trend.

Boakai's messaging speaks to this growing angst. Casting himself as a man on a mission to rescue the country from Weah's rule, his statements at Friday's campaign rally focused on pursuing an agenda that puts the interest of the people and the country first. 

"Over the last six years, our country  entered  its lowest state; characterized by degradation of our value system, unprecedented economic hardship, devalued and demoralized civil servants, and an upward trend in rewarding political patronage, a practice that has totally undercut the merit-based system,” he said, adding that “our mission will seek to reform the Presidency and develop a new leadership team to effectively manage our country with integrity, honesty, and respect for human dignity.”

While Weah's performance in the economy makes him vulnerable,  Boakai is no different as he has to face questions on the Unity Party's shortcomings while in power and his own claims to inefficacy in that quarter. 

In the end, the race may come down to no more than lesser of two undesirables. However, the heavy weight of tribal loyalties, on which the Kissi Boakai has leaned so far may hold firm and carry him over the finish line. That is, provided no other candidates are able to split the Nimba vote and thus neutralize the Koung effect.